Miami-Dade County

Convicted lobbyist becomes a star witness in Miami Lakes mayor’s bribery trial

Many months would pass after Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi wigged out when a couple of sketchy Chicago businessmen bluntly pitched him on a “money grab” for some “bogus” federal grants.

After initially backing away, however, prosecutors say Pizzi agreed to rejoin their supposed scam after he was elected to a second term in November 2012.

The man who pulled the politician back in was Richard Candia, a likable lobbyist who had raised thousands of dollars for Pizzi’s re-election campaign.

Candia was an unwitting target of an FBI sting operation aimed at the Miami Lakes mayor. After he was confronted by agents last summer, the lobbyist assisted in the undercover probe of Pizzi, who was arrested in August. Candia — convicted himself after confessing to taking bribes — will be in the hot seat this week as the prosecution’s star witness in the suspended mayor’s corruption trial in Miami federal court.

Pizzi, 51, is charged with accepting $6,750 in illegal checks and cash from two undercover FBI agents posing as the sleazy Chicago men in a grant-writing business. Prosecutors say the agents lured him into officially supporting sham federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney, in exchange for the bribes.

Throughout trial this month, Candia has been described as either a “bag man” or a “liar,” depending on which side is arguing in court. For the 49-year-old Candia, who once moved in Anglo and Hispanic political circles with equal ease, taking the witness stand will probably be the roughest role of his life.

If there was any doubt about the high stakes of his testimony, consider what a prosecutor and Pizzi’s defense attorney said about him during opening statements in early July.

“He will tell you that he was the insider with Mr. Pizzi,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer told the 12-person jury. “He will tell you that he and Mr. Pizzi agreed to use Pizzi’s power so that they could get [campaign] contributions and cash.”

“And no doubt there will be cross-examination of Mr. Candia, and the allegation will be made that he is just making this up to save himself, to save his own skin and to get out of jail.”

Indeed, defense attorney Ed Shohat told the same federal jury: “I will suggest that you are going to find in this case for a variety of reasons that Rich Candia and the truth are estranged. They don’t know each other.”

When Candia pleaded guilty in May, Pizzi described the lobbyist as “a liar who would say and do anything to help himself.”

Candia admitted he played a crucial part in recruiting Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño into the alleged kickback scheme orchestrated by the FBI. Maroño's right-hand man, lobbyist Jorge Forte, was also snared in the undercover operation.

Maroño and Forte already pleaded guilty to fraud charges entailing $60,000 in bribe payments for the Sweetwater grant deals. The former political allies were sentenced to about 3 1/2 years and 1 year, respectively.

Candia, who pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracies in the separate Pizzi and Maroño cases, is likely to receive a prison sentence of two years.

Originally a target of the investigation, Candia is going to get credit for flipping for the feds in late June 2013. He agreed to make what prosecutors say was a final cash payment of $3,000 to Pizzi in a Medley Town Hall office closet last July, just before the mayor’s arrest.

For his part, Candia pocketed at least $16,000 in kickbacks for the Sweetwater grants — far more than the $500 he received for arranging Pizzi's first meeting with the two FBI undercover agents at Miami Lakes Town Hall.

The FBI sting operation was launched in the summer of 2011 after public-corruption agents retained Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti as an informant. Kesti, who would be paid $114,000 in fees and expenses including a rented Lexus, told the FBI there were several corrupt lobbyists and politicians in the county.

Their first target was Candia, who had Miami Lakes and Medley as clients and was close to Pizzi.

Kesti and the two undercover agents, who claimed to work for a grant-writing company called Sunshine Universal, asked Candia to make introductions to various municipal mayors. The scheme was to gain their support for actual federal economic-development grants through AmeriCorps -- with the goal of keeping the money for themselves.

At the time, Candia, a one-time legislative aide to former state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, was struggling in his lobbying practice and going through a divorce.

One of the undercover agents, Leonardo Durkacz, testified that he offered Candia incentives up to $10,000 for each municipality that would pass a resolution to apply for a federal grant. He was also promised a 10- to 15-percent cut of any grant proceeds purportedly intended for spurring local job growth. And he would later ask the undercover agent for a $2,500 loan to fix the air conditioner at his home.

With Candia on board, the lobbyist recommended that Pizzi “might be open” to the purported scam, Durkacz testified. But Durkacz also said that Candia revealed he knew of no corruption in Pizzi's past.

At trial, Candia’s testimony will focus on a series of three cash kickbacks — $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000 — that Pizzi allegedly accepted between December 2012 and July 2013. Candia was the alleged bag man for the first and third transactions, and the FBI undercover agents handled the second payoff.

Prosecutors say that Candia’s relationship with Pizzi strengthened after he raised funds for his re-election bid in November 2012, and that the mayor reached out to the lobbyist to reconnect with the undercover agents posing as the Sunshine Universal businessmen.

Candia arranged for himself, Kesti and the agents to meet with Pizzi for dinner at Shula’s steakhouse in Miami Lakes on Dec. 13, 2012. The bill, paid by the FBI, came to $625. According to a recording of the meeting, Pizzi said he wanted the businessmen to donate money to his Christmas toy drive for disadvantaged children, which Durkacz testified was “double speak” for a bribe.

Later that night, at a nearby billiard club, Candia claims the mayor told him to ask the undercover agents for $1,000 in exchange for his support of the grant application in Medley, according to a factual statement filed with Candia’s plea agreement.

Candia told the undercover agents at the pool hall that Pizzi wanted the lobbyist to collect the money from them the next day, the document said.

After Candia left the pool hall, one of the agents approached Pizzi and said in a recorded conversation: “Rich was kinda like all over the place. I mean he says he wants me to give him a G [$1,000] for you tomorrow or tonight or? I don’t know he is all over the f---ing place on me.

“I got it now if you want it or ...”

Pizzi responded: “Do whatever Rich asks you to do.”

The next day, the undercover agents gave Candia $1,000 in a hotel room at the Holiday Inn in Miami Lakes to give to Pizzi. Candia claims he met Pizzi at a Starbucks cafe and put the cash on a table, and that the mayor wrapped a newspaper around the money to carry it away. The lobbyist also claims he gave Pizzi a letter to endorse Sunshine Universal for Medley’s grant application, which the mayor later signed.

But at trial, Pizzi’s defense team argued that the mayor did not take the cash from Candia, and that the FBI made no recording and conducted no surveillance to prove it.

“All you are going to have is Candia’s word that he gave Mike that money,” Shohat told jurors at the start of Pizzi’s trial, “and I’m going to tell you the evidence is going to show he did not give him that money.”